Area scientists are abuzz about algae


By Laura Petersen

La Jolla Light

If energy is the space race of this generation, then San Diego is in it to win it.

Local universities, research institutions and private biotechnology companies are joining forces to figure out how to economically create biofuels from algae. The green organism that ranges from pond scum to seaweed may become the renewable fuel of the future.

If successful, San Diego could become the next Houston powering the nation, at the same time as reducing America’s dependence on foreign oil and decreasing carbon dioxide emissions, a major element of global warming.

To advance the research and development of algal biofuel, scientists at UCSD, the Scripps Research Institute and other local research institutions recently joined industry counterparts to launch the San Diego Center for Algae Biotechnology.

“We are positioning San Diego to become the leader of the new energy economy,” said Steve Kay, dean of biological sciences at UCSD and director of the new center, known as SD-CAB.

An estimated 270 biologists, chemists, geneticists and engineers in private biotechnology labs and universities in San Diego are already working to better understand algae as a renewable source for transportation fuels.

SD-CAB will facilitate communication and collaboration between these scientists and help quickly translate research discoveries to real-world applications, Kay said. Also, by joining forces under a single entity, Kay and others anticipate being able to better compete for funding, including the millions expected to come from the Obama administration for renewable energy.

Algae is widely seen as a promising source of renewable transportation fuels because it grows quickly, uses fewer resources and yields more fuel per acre than first-generation biofuels, such as corn or switchgrass.

For example, algae can generate 10 to 50 times the amount of oil per acre that soybeans or palms can. Only 45 million acres would be needed to produce the 140 billion gallons of liquid fuel America consumes each year.

Another benefit is that algae can grow in places where other food crops can’t, including nonarable land in the sunny Southwest, as well as brackish and salt water.

The oil derived from algae can be integrated into existing refining and delivery infrastructure.

And, algae is carbon neutral fuel because it consumes more carbon dioxide when growing than it emits when the fuel is burned.

Scientists and venture capitalists say they are three to five years away from developing an economically viable, large-scale demonstration of algae biofuel production, at which point they hope major oil companies will step in to fund widespread production.

However, it’s going to take billions of investment dollars to get there. Scientists still have a lot to learn about the microbiology of algae as well as figure out how to bring the price down from $20 to $30 a gallon.

But with premiere research institutions working with San Diego’s cutting-edge biotechnology industry, and the perfect outdoor laboratory from the ocean to the Imperial Valley, Stephen Mayfield, associate dean at The Scripps Research Institute, is confident they will find the answers.

“It’s not a just a biology problem, it’s not just an engineering problem, it’s not just a chemistry problem, it’s all of those,” Mayfield said. “The reason we’re building this center is to bring all of these disciplines together. With all of us working together, we will crack this nut.”